Occupy's pivotal moment

Occupy Wall Street protesters await to return to Zuccotti Park.

Kai Ryssdal: The city they say never sleeps actually didn't sleep last night. At least not the small part of it in and around Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. Police moved in about 1 o'clock this morning. They arrested more than 200 people and cleaned the place out.

Protester 1: This whole thing that happened -- all it does is rejuvenate everybody. Puts us back into the media spotlight, show exactly how our First Amendment rights have been taken away. So I mean, I have to thank Mayor Bloomberg for helping us out in a sense.

Protester 2: I think the work continues. It's just a matter of whether we're going to have an Occupy space from now on or not, and where would that be.

Police officer: Folks, you can circle the block but you've got to clear this corner, all right, please? We're not saying you've got to leave, we've just got to clear this corner.

The events of the wee small hours puts the birthplace of the Occupy movement in the same boat as protesters in Portland, Salt Lake City and Oakland, Calif. -- that is, without a place to Occupy.

We spoke to historian Jeremi Suri a couple of months ago when the movement started. We've called him back. Good to have you with us.

Jeremi Suri: Nice to be on the show.

Ryssdal: How important do you think the physical presence turns out to be?

Suri: I think the physical presence is very important, because number one, it attracts people's attention, and number two, it provides a space where people can organize, exchange information and plan out their strategy.

Ryssdal: What's that strategy going to be, though, now that they are of necessity someplace else?

Suri: I think the strategy's going to be to find another place or to get back to the park and other places where they were before. We've already seen a lot of these Occupy movements move onto college campuses; I think we'll see them do that. But we'll also see the desire to get back to the original space as a cause that will motivate people and will bring more attention and more people out on the streets.

Ryssdal: Is it possible that Mike Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, did these guys a favor by shutting them down when winter's coming and, in theory, the outside presence was going to get smaller anyway?

Suri: I think he did, and to tell you the truth, I don't understand why he made this move right now. I think as you said, the weather was working in his favor, and what he's done now is he's given them a cause célèbre. He's motivated people to come out, evoke sympathy for the protesters, and they will get more people to come into the streets now because of what Bloomberg did than they would have before.

Ryssdal: Sort of the follow-on question is: Why did he let them stay so long? Why did anybody in Oakland or Portland or where-have-you let them stay so long?

Suri: Well I think people underestimated their permanence and how long they would be able to organize and mobilize themselves. And also no one wanted to be responsible for sending in the police to remove them. That's not a pleasant situation. So they hoped it would go away, and of course it didn't.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Short of one of the members of the Occupy movement getting elected to Congress in November, how are we going to know that they have succeeded? I mean, let's posit that they succeeded in getting income inequality into the national discussion, but then what?

Suri: I think we will know they've succeeded if we see a bloc of voters come out in the primaries and particularly in the presidential election, and in local elections that occur at the same time, and have influence on the outcome. If we go back, Kai, and we look at the results and say in these close elections that we're likely to have, a group of voters who didn't vote before or didn't vote in these blocs before, came out and voted for a candidate because they felt that the candidate was addressing their issues -- we'll say they mattered.

Ryssdal: Use your history professor lens then, and tell me what those candidates are going to stand for. Is it going to be the Democratic side of the ledger, I imagine?

Suri: I think it's going to have to be, and I think it's going to be Democrats who come out -- perhaps even President Obama -- and talk about real measures they're going to take to address economic inequality and to address the limitations on economic mobility in our society today.

Ryssdal: All points granted, but we're not seeing Barack Obama down at Zuccotti Park. We're not seeing Nancy Pelosi; we're not seeing Democratic politicians embrace them the way some Republican politicians embraced the Tea Party with their smaller government, lower taxes message.

Suri: I think that's true. But I think we will see Democratic politicians, particularly local and state politicians -- maybe even the president -- go on and embrace this.

Ryssdal: With all the reports that there have been the past few weeks of violence and problems in these Occupy camps -- this is a bit of a stretch -- could you call this Occupy's Altamont moment?

Suri: I don't think it's the Altamont moment, but I think it's 1967. Which is when there's a sort of build up of a movement, and it could go in many different directions. And we will see it go in multiple directions; there'll be different offshoots and it'll look different in different cities. But anytime you add police force to a situation like this, it makes things potentially much more violent.

Ryssdal: Jeremi Suri is a professor of history at the University of Texas. Jeremi, thanks a lot.

Suri: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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